by the late
Published by the Association for Christian Development 1986
How do cults attract -- and trap? This highly useful and
readable article combines both recent scholarship and personal
experience into a handy guide for distinguishing healthy growth
movements from dangerous/lethal cults. If you have children or
young relatives you will want this checklist for cult detection
-- it could turn your life around.
Guess, if you can, the identity of this famous spiritual
As a young minister, he dedicated himself full-time
resisting public scorn and opposition -- to help an unpopular
minority group. Not only did our mystery minister preach
tolerance and equality, he did something about prejudice and
injustice. Not taking no for an answer he arranged the purchase
of an abandoned synagogue. With little funds and apparent faith
he turned the synagogue into a church with a "mixed" congregation
of blacks and whites.
The townspeople did not necessarily approve; they certainly
did not help: in the later 1950's small-minded people and racial
prejudice often went together. As a matter of fact, the locals --
ministers included -- tried to shut the upstart church down. But
our plucky leader's persistence, coupled with care for the sick
and downtrodden, served the new congregation well. With these
qualities plus undoubted charismatic appeal, he won over
thousands of dedicated followers, and support from the greater
community as well. He and his wife adopted nine orphans and gave
them a permanent home with his two natural children.
He managed to stay on the good side of the press,
successfully avoiding and defeating the occasional challenges of
government agencies checking on his church. Moreover he gained
political influence and positively impacted his community in the
area of civil rights. He housed and fed senior citizens and
medical convalescents, maintained a home for retarded boys,
rehabilitated youthful drug users. Of many inspiring stories that
surround our legendary leader, this is only one. Once lying ill
in a hospital, he refused treatment until a seriously ill black
man could be attended to. Finally in April 1975 he was named "one
of the 100 most outstanding clergymen in the nation" by Religion
in American Life, Inc., an inter-faith organization.
For these reasons and many others, his followers loved him.
Who was he?
His name was James Warren Jones.
Most knew him better as Jim Jones.
His final sermon in the jungles of Guyana killed 913 people!
Beyond these unfortunate 913, Jones' son and crony brutally
slaughtered nine more at nearby Port Kaituma airport. Back in the
U.S. at least three more were murdered in their home by a Jones'
agent. Often overlooked is this: 277 of these human sacrifices
were innocent children . . . less than 16 years old.
Would you have identified him sooner than his unfortunate
900 plus victims? Perhaps so, but hindsight far outstrips
foresight. Realistically we must admit that Jones' followers also
had intelligence, yet it was difficult for ordinary onlookers as
well as those involved to detect Jones' paranoia, his borderline
insanity. But the sickness went largely undetected --
understandably so, because cults frequently attract their
unsuspecting prey by putting forward a very deceptive front.
Those days in November, 1978 were tragic indeed --
especially the loss of the children.
But here is good news. Good news, even if more than 2,000
cults have sprung up in the last two decades! Jones' sinister
surprise package -- and the phony fronts of other cultists --
would now be easier to detect. How so? Two major advances help
us: 1) knowledge, especially from fresh investigation of
Scripture and the study called sociology of religion; 2)
experience, drawn from many old and new cults and their escapees.
If you read on carefully you and/or your friends and loved
ones -- especially your children -- can avoid the serious pitfall
of being caught in a cult.
LET KNOWLEDGE BE YOUR GUIDE
Not only can you avoid the cult trap with the knowledge that
follows, you can discover/identify healthy growth movements. The
first step to begin identifying requires us to know the
difference between "church," "sect," and "cult."
As we explained in "Oh Captain! My Captain!" (RCD
Newsletter, Feb.1988) "church" applies to a relatively
long-standing, institutionalized group which exists in low
tension with society. (Stark and Bainbridge, 1905, see Endnote
1) This "low tension" means that as an institution, it has become
-- to a greater or lesser degree -- part and parcel with the
2) Church growth takes place mainly by marriage (an outsider
marries into the church) and by baptism (of younger family
3) Finally, churches usually give their solution formally -- i.e.
the salvation, the sacraments, or grace that is offered, is
officially administered through a ritual and/or hierarchy.
"Sect" and "cult" have been hazy words applied to even
foggier concepts for decades. Even so, we are surprised to find
the most authoritative dictionary in this area, the "Oxford
Dictionary of the Christian Church," second edition, 1974, has no
entry for either word. Let's clear up confusion by studying each
of these two words in order.
Formerly a negative sounding word, "sect" is now losing its
sneer thanks to long, arduous work by researchers and
sociologists. "Sect" now describes positive groups who break away
from a church or another sect. ("Sect" comes from the Latin verb
"to follow," and in this form meant a "way of life"). Why do they
separate and follow another path, another way of life? The answer
involves both the "grace" and the tension just mentioned . . .
unless it concerns sheer personality conflict over leadership.
If the issue really is issues, not persons, the new break-away
sect wants to 1) receive "grace" more directly, and/or 2) correct
or challenge the surrounding culture. Culture has swallowed or
dominated the staid, deeply rooted church -- or the sleepy sect.
It is time, in the mind of our sectarians, to pull up roots,
stand outside, and change their group, or even society! Look at
this same idea in graphic form; then you will be well prepared to
understand the crucial differences between sect and cult.
<------SECT/ RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT Correcting culture Conflict with
society Grace more direct (High tension)
------->CHURCH/ RELIGIOUS INSTITUTION Blending with culture
Society accepted Grace more formalized (Law tension)
The line at the going right (no political reference)
represents (almost) total acceptance of the surrounding society
Perhaps no church goes quite that far; but as we move slowly
left, away from the right, we find most of the mainline churches.
As we continue moving left, crossing center, we encounter sects:
by definition splinter or reform groups which break off from an
existing religious group. The key is this: the far left
represents rejection of society. Thus as we proceed leftwards, we
find groups becoming more and more "radical." That is what we
usually mean by "radical" -- strong rejection of same "majority"
idea or practice. Sects thus exist in greater or lesser tension
with secular society. Typically these groups grow principally
through active canvassing, outreach and evangelism. Churches,
remember, grow principally through adding the children of
Many Christians will agree on this: that dynamic
Christianity witnesses to, not becomes part and parcel with,
godless or materialistic society. Some of these same Christians
may lament that their church or sect has made too much peace with
the world! When this lament becomes loud enough, a new sect will
So as you may now suspect, many sects reflect healthy
growth, creative criticism and/or a "revival" of dynamic
Christian witness. An important insight? As we now proceed to
clarify the concept of "cult", keep the above graph in mind.
THE CHAOS OF CULTS: CLEARING AWAY CONFUSION
By now we are clear on the word church -- an institution
existing as part of, and in low tension with society -- and on
sect -- a breakaway group. What about the slippery word "cult"?
We have already seen that major reference works (usually from the
1960s and early '70s) do not even list or discuss "cults." Are we
then limited to Lewis Rambo's (no relation to the movie hero!)
humorous definition: "cult" sometimes means "any group you don't
Right, the word is used that way sometimes, we admit. We
also recognize the usual academic meaning: "religion," "way of
worship." But neither the humorous nor academic definitions help
us with the modern morass of chaotic cults. However do not
At last confusion is clearing away. Beginning with Jan van
Baalen's "Chaos of the Cults" (1938), and Walter Martin's "The
Kingdom of The Cults" (1965, second edition 1985), on through
Rambo (1983) who has more to offer than just a humorous idea, up
to the most recent work of the brilliant sociologists Stark and
Bainbridge (1985,1986), a clear concept of cult emerges.
Dr. Charles Braden in his book "These Also Believe" (1951)
offers this definition, explaining that he means nothing
any religious group which differs significantly in some one
or more respects as to belief or practice from those
religious groups which are regarded as the normative
expressions of religion in our total culture (4).
Dr. Walter Martin offers a simplification after citing Braden:
a cult is a group of people gathered about a specific person
or person's misinterpretation of the Bible . . . cults
contain many major deviations from historic Christianity
While we would not argue with his list of cults, we would
need to sharpen his definition. That definition, strictly taken,
leaves Jesus and his followers open to the label "cult." Of
course Dr.Martin, since he is a sincere Christian, does not
intend that. The second phrase "a person's misinterpretation"
leaves open the question: who determines the only "right"
interpretation? Sincere and orthodox Christians have honest
differences over interpreting the Bible. On the positive side,
however, Dr.Martin gives us a helpful clue:
cults do not necessarily have living leaders, as formerly
thought. Cults can center on doctrine -- even on the
doctrine of a departed demagog.
Now we are ready for the clarification and breakthroughs of
Professors Stark and Bainbridge, researchers in sociology, who
spent years of arduous study in this area and published their
startling results in 1985 and 1986 (see Endnote 6). As a result,
three kinds of cults can new be identified: 1) audience; 2)
client; 3) movement. Only the briefest description will be
necessary for our purpose.
Not necessarily religious, these types are "diffusely
organized" with little or no formal ties. Membership is mostly a
consumer activity. How so?
Indeed, cult audiences often do not gather physically but
consume cult doctrines entirely through magazines, books,
newspapers, radio, and television (Stark, 1985: 26).
Describing the minimal face-to-face contact of this type as
"most closely resembling a very loose lecture circuit," Stark
presents the curious findings of his on-site investigation of the
Annual Spacecraft Convention held in Oakland, California. (One
can almost hear the comeback "California . . . where else?") But
here is Stork's report, slightly edited for shortness.
Some speakers described their trips to outer space on flying
saucers piloted by "persons" from other planets. Some even
showed (and sold) photographs of the saucer they had gone on
and of outer space creatures (contactors) who had taken them
far the ride. What seemed astounding in context, because
tales of those contacted by spacemen (cantactees) seemed to
be accepted uncritically, was the fact that other speakers
merely tried to demonstrate that same kind of UFOs must
exist, but without claiming that they necessarily came from
Our researchers, along with most of us, puzzle over this,
People who had given nodding support to tales of space
travellers also gave full attention to those who merely
suggested that saucers might exist. Moreover, many speakers
(and the majority of those working out of booths) had little
connection with the saucer question at all. Instead they
pushed standard varieties of pseudoscience and cult
doctrines on the ground that these flourish on the more
enlightened worlds from which UFOs come. Astrologers,
medical quacks, inventors of perpetual motion machines
(seeking investors), food faddist,, spiritualists, and the
like were all present and busy. (7)
Another curious but clear finding:
They accept everything, more or less, and in effect accept
nothing but their sheer open-mindedness makes it impossible
for them to strongly commit to any complete system of
thought: they are constitutional nibblers" (Stark, 1905:28,
Accepting too much, these secular to quasi-religious cults
provide many curious examples of the "bogey-man" mentality. Many
conspiracy theories range within the audience type: the
CFR-phobes, Bilderbergers, Illuminati, "evil-Rockefellers", etc.
Worst of all however are the hate doctrines of the Jew/Black
loathers. Some of these last even teach that these humans -- made
in the image of God -- descend from the Serpents mating with Eve.
But to ascribe humans -- God's creation -- to Satan, is precisely
what Jesus called blasphemy (Mt. 12:22-32).
The next step upward in terms of organization are the
"client" groups who relate to that, followers more along the
lines of therapist and patient or consultant and client. "In the
past the therapies/services sold centered around medical
miracles, forecasts of the future, or contact with the dead."
Today however these cults specialize in
psychological/personal adjustment. Thus Stark says:
...today one can "get in" at est, get "cleared" through
Scientology, store up "orgone" and seek the monumental
orgasm through the Reich Foundation, get rolfed, actualized,
sensitized, or psychoanalyzed (Stark:28).
The two researchers, who have also checked many of these
groups firsthand, report that client cults "more fully mobilize
participants" than the audience type. Nevertheless, this
"recruitment" or mobilization remains only partial. The
all-embracing dedication frequently associated with cults must
await our third category. At the client level most followers stay
as clients, not members. Sometimes the same followers participate
in two or more cults at the same time: They also may retain and
practice their membership in an organized, even mainstream
religious group besides!
"When the spiritualist medium is able to get his or her
clients to attend sessions regularly on Sunday morning, and
thus, in a Christian context, to sever their ties with other
religious organizations, we observe the birth of a cult
Now read carefully. Cult movements:
are full-fledged religious organizations that attempt to
satisfy all the religious needs of converts. Dual membership
with another faith is out. Attempts to cause social change,
by converting others, become central to the group agenda
Still in all, many cult movements do not develop into strong
organizations. So we may distinguish three levels of
"strength"/intensity within cult movements themselves. As we rise
through these three levels, we will see an increasing demand an
the cult members as they attempt to usher in the "New Age."
Remember please, all three of the following "levels" qualify
as full-fledged religious organizations that attempt to satisfy
all the spiritual/religious/social needs of converts. "Dual
membership with another faith is out" -- nix, verboten! And
converting new members to strengthen the movement, in order to
cause social change, becomes a high priority on the group agenda.
Caution: do not confuse these three new levels with the
above cult types -audience and client -- which do not qualify as
1) LAW COMMITMENT CULTS
After the description just given, it may seem surprising,
but some cult movements do not mobilize to a high degree. As
Stark points out, they remain basically in the category of study
groups. These cells or groups gather regularly to hear the new
revelations or latest spirit messages from the leader/guru. And
what is expected for the honor of membership? Little more than
regular attendance, modest financial support and agreement with
(=assent to "truth") cult doctrines. Frequently in groups
surveyed, moral/life-style restrictions were no more stringent
than those of "the outside world" (=society in general). But more
intense groups do exist and bring us to the second level.
2) MEDIUM COMMITMENT CULTS
"Medium" here intends no pun, but since spiritism is not
dead, you may bring it up and enjoy it anyway? Here member
involvement is "quite intense." But the overall impression seems
much like a conventional sect. Tension with society/culture rates
high; moral rules exceed those of society in general. But notice
this: involvement in the cult, though intense, is not total:
to manipulate the universe for specific and/or personal
goals; 3) "there can be no Church of Magic" i.e. magic does
not bind a group together, does not hold a laity in
fellowship, does not unite a "moral community" (The
Elementary Forms of the Religious Life 1915: 44-45).
Societies or guilds of magicians do not constitute an
exception: we do not refer at all to entertainment magic, which
is really illusion. Stark adds other important qualifiers to help
us identify magic. Religion requires long term commitment; magic
does not -- it frequently offers the "quick fix." Religion offers
vast general rewards, which are not subject to scientific
measurement; magic offers more limited, specific "rewards" that
are subject to tests and measurements. But magic offers its goods
to an unsuspecting public even though reliable science disclaims
the value of these goods.
What does magic, so defined, have to do with cults?
Quite a bit.
Audience cults -- our first type -- preoccupy themselves
with "simple mythology and only very weak farms of magic." An
example cited by the researchers is E. von Daniken's "magic
claims about the history of civilization" (Stark: 35), meaning
the theory that gods or beings from space colonized the earth.
But his film "In Search of Ancient Astronauts" does not offer
grand explanations of the meaning of life and does not offer
Our second type however, client cults, deal in serious
magic: exchange of specific rewards for something of real value.
Here the example cited is the directive, not the descriptive type
of astrology which claims to pick the right day for lucrative
investments and happy marriages . . . valuable goods, indeed.
. . . most members continue to lead regular lives -- they work,
marry, rear children, have hobbies, take vacations, and have
contact in the ordinary way with noncult members such as family
and friends. (Stark: 29)
This last identifier contrasts with the third and most
tightly organized and intense of cult movements.
3) TOTAL COMMITMENT CULTS
Stark labels this level as a "total way of life."
Researcher Philip Selznick labelled the unfortunate dupes of
this level "deplorable agents." Their identity is formed, and
their lives are led, by the cult. Often they live in. If they
hold "outside" jobs it will be "only where and when they are
directed to do so, often in enterprises the cult owns and
operates . . . When not hustling money, these deplorable agents
seek converts or devote themselves to group chores or worship
activities" (Stark: 29-30).
So much for the three levels of cult movements. None of the
three general types nor the three cult movement "levels" qualify
as sects. But if you remember the sect-church diagram above, you
will see that all cults range from the mid-point to the far
(radical) left in "tension" with society.
MAGIC VS RELIGION
Stark and Bainbridge move forward to apply the distinction
between magic and religion to their cult classification. The
famous French sociologist, Emile Ourkheim, made a conceptual
breakthrough when he distinguished magic from religion in these
important ways: 1) magic does not concern itself with ultimate
meaning(s) of the universe (such ultimacy = one of the most
important identifiers of religion); 2) magic seeks the
third-level, cult movements, may or may mat offer magic. If they
do it is a serious deception - perhaps even lethal. In any case
they do offer religion -- grand explanations of ultimate meaning
and rewards which require long-term commitment. Moon's
Unification Church and Guru Maharji Ji's Divine Light Mission
provide good examples.
So much for background, definitions and general
understanding. Can we offer specifics so that you can protect
yourself or your loved ones?
Jim Jones did show signs -- signs that could have alerted
the innocent. As a child, Jones used to march playmates around,
switching out-of-liners until they cried . . . still they
returned to play again. Presumably they returned because of his
magnetism and promised rewards. Once a recognized minister, Jones
began to use members to spy and report on each other. Some knew
that he used electrodes to sting the legs and arms of the
children; why? So they would smile at the mention of his name
(for outsider and press consumption)!
In one sermon Jones slammed the Bible down on the floor and
shouted, "Too many people are looking at this and not at me!"
(9). But even though this last statement came in church, and
early on in his ministry, most of the danger signs were not as
public -- not so easy to see.
You can be much better prepared, however, than were those
unfortunate victims of Jonestown.
Look for these MAJOR danger signs. If SEVERAL show up
TO BE CONTINUED
Keith Hunt and Dr.Charles Dorothy
Dr.Dorothy was a minister with the Worldwide Church of God and
teacher at Ambassador College, from at least the 1960s (when I
entered the membership of that church, in the early and middle
60s called "The Radio Church of God"). I did not meet and get to
know Charles Dorothy until 1985 or 1986 (the exact year now
escapes my memory), after he was "out of" the Worldwide Church
of God. I spent the entire Feast of Tabernacles with him, at
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, under the sponsorship of the
Association of Christian Development. Charles had recently
married Ken Westby's sister (Ken was the founder of ACD after he
had left the WCG) and was a direct part of ACD.
A nicer man one could not wish to meet. Dr.Charles Dorothy was a
"scholar" of both Hebrew and Greek. I well remember that I had my
4 volume Hebrew/English Bible by Green, with me. On seeing them
Charles sorrowfully, with a sign in his voice, said to me,
"Keith, that could have been my name of that set of
Hebrew/English Bible. I wanted to do what Green did, before Green
did it, but they (meaning the Worldwide Church of God) would not
let me or allow me to do it."
You could see the sadness written all over his face.
Dr.Charles Dorothy was a most HUMBLE man, no vanity, no "airs" of
"scholarship" about him, as far too many carry around with their
PhD's. It was a pleasure to have known him. He died in the late
1990s from cancer.
More about Charles Dorothy at the end of part two in this study
of his - Keith Hunt (August 2004).